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J. Sterling Morton, About trees (Review)

June 15, 2014

One of the first Library of America stories I wrote about here was John Muir’s “A wind-storm in the forests“, so when I saw one titled “About trees” pop up recently, I had to read it. By recently, I mean April – as the Library of America published it to coincide with Arbor Day in the US which occurs at the end of April. J. Sterling Morton is credited as the originator of “this tree-planting festival” – in 1872.

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

JS Morton, ca 1890s (Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

According to Wikipedia, J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) was a Nebraska pioneer, newspaper editor and Secretary of Agriculture for President Cleveland. According to LOA’s notes, Morton and his wife moved in the mid-1850s “to a bare, windswept 160-acre homestead in newly incorporated Nebraska City”. This is when, LOA says, his “mania for tree-planting” began. I don’t know much about Nebraska – and what I do know has come from Willa Cather’s novel My Ántonia (my review), which was published in 1918 but set around the 1880s. The landscape Cather describes in that novel rings true to LOA’s description of Morton’s Nebraska. Anyhow, like other successful pioneers, Morton gradually expanded his original small house into something much larger – in his case, a replica of the White House, no less! His estate is now the Arbor Lodge State Historical Park and Arboretum.

Now to the article, “About trees”. It is, LOA tells us, the prefatory chapter in a pamphlet titled Arbor Day Leaves that was compiled in 1893 by the chief of the US Forestry Division, Nathaniel Hillyer Egelston. It was intended as “a complete programme for Arbor Day observance, including readings, recitations, music and general information”. Some pamphlet, eh?

Morton starts by praising trees as:

the perfection in strength, beauty and usefulness of vegetable life. It stands majestic through the sun and storm of centuries. Resting in summer beneath its cooling shade, or sheltering besides its massive trunk from the chilling blast of winter, we are prone to forget the little seed whence it came. Trees are no respecter of persons. They grow as luxuriantly besides the cabin of the pioneer as against the palace of the millionaire.

Sherbrooke Forest and Eucalyptus regnans

Sherbrooke Forest (Vic) and Eucalyptus regnans

He says trees are “living materials organised in the laboratory of Nature’s mysteries out of rain, sunlight, dews and earth”, and are the result of a deft metamorphosis. He explains this metamorphosis by telling us more specifically how an oak grows from a planted acorn, and how the earth, through the roots, provides food such as phosphates while:

foliage and twig and trunk are busy in catching sunbeams, air, and thunderstorms, to imprison in the annual increment of solid wood. There is no light coming from your wood, corncob, or coal fire which some vegetable Prometheus did not, in its days of growth, steal from the sun and secrete in the mysteries of a vegetable organism.

I love the John Muir-like romantic prose here! Animal and tree life are, he says, interdependent. Trees are “essential to man’s health and life”. Without vegetable life and growth, animal life would be exterminated:

When the last tree shall have been destroyed there will be no man left to mourn the improvidence and thoughtlessness of the forest-destroying race to which he belonged.

It’s worrying that over a century later, we have Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott stating that “We have quite enough national parks. We have quite enough locked up forests already. In fact, in an important respect, we have too much locked up forest.” (For one academic’s assessment of the issue, check out forest ecologist Rod Keenan’s* article,  “Abbott’s half right: our national parks are good but not perfect”, at The Conversation.)

Morton argues that “in all civilisations man has cut down and consumed, but rarely restored or replanted, the forests”. In some parts of the world, this has changed, due largely to initiatives like Arbor Day, Earth Hour, not to mention the creation of national parks and reserves. Of course, replanting with (obviously) new trees does change the ecological balance and no matter how carefully managed it is, it is based on knowledge that we know is imperfect. Better then, as much as possible, to preserve forests and let them renew naturally – or so it seems to me!

Anyhow, Morton concludes by reaffirming the importance of planting trees “to avert treelessness, to improve the climatic conditions, for the love of the beautiful and useful combined”.

Arbor Day is, he says

the only anniversary in which humanity looks future ward instead of past ward, in which there is a consensus of thought for those who are to come after us, instead of reflections concerning those who have gone before us. It is a practical anniversary. It is a beautiful anniversary.

When Arbor Day Leaves was published in 1893, forty-four of the USA’s then forty-eight states observed Arbor Day (and by 1920s all states were practising it). What a great legacy.

Later this week, I will post on Australia’s first Arbor Day … watch this space.

J. Sterling Morton
“About trees”
First published: in Arbor Day Leaves (ed. N.H. Egelston), 1893
Available: Online at the Library of America

* I’m no expert, and Rod Keenan is not the darling of all environmentalists, but he offers a reasoned perspective.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2014 11:30 pm

    Neat article! Tree is my middle name and I agree with your observation about our assumptions regarding the best way to work in harmony with nature. Far better to not disrupt the balance in the first place!

  2. June 16, 2014 5:44 am

    “They grow as luxuriantly besides the cabin of the pioneer as against the palace of the millionaire.” I like that.

  3. June 16, 2014 6:29 am

    Only you could review a book from the 19th century and show it as interesting: no-one else would bother ! Looking forward to our own Arbor Day …

  4. June 19, 2014 3:14 am

    Oh how wonderful! I have never heard of Morton before. Sadly states no longer celebrate Arbor Day. If it is celebrated it is a community event generally sponsored by a school or an environmental group. It is heartening though always to learn how many people love trees and understand how important they are, both past and present!

    • June 19, 2014 7:58 am

      Oh, I wondered if you had, Stefanie. Thought you would like this. I did read that Earth Hour has taken over to a large degree … But they’re different aren’t they. It’s pretty much the same here, as you, regarding Arbor Day, I mean.

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